• August 29, 2015

Another Chance Is Offered to Those Who Fell Just Short of a Degree

Students who left college before graduating may get a second chance at earning their degree.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Lumina Foundation for Education announced a joint program on Wednesday to find formerly enrolled college students whose academic records qualify them to be awarded associate degrees retroactively.

The three-year, $1.3-million effort, called Project Win-Win, also plans to identify former students who fell just short of an associate degree, by nine or fewer credits, and re-enroll them to earn a degree.

The project has the potential to be a real game-changer in terms of the nation's efforts to achieve the college-completion goals set out by President Obama, the nation's governors, and Lumina. The president has repeatedly called for more Americans to earn college certificates or degrees so that by 2020 the United States can once again have the world's highest proportion of college graduates.

"This is an enormous down-payment," said Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the institute. "These students are comparatively easy candidates for credentials."

The institute will coordinate and assist 35 community colleges and four-year universities that offer associate degrees in six states that are participating in the program: Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Institutions will audit their student records, looking for former students who are eligible for degrees and those who are close to completion.

Expansion of Pilot Program

The project announced Wednesday expands a pilot program that began last academic year in partnership with Education Trust and included nine institutions in three states. The original, seven-month project awarded nearly 600 associate degrees and identified almost 1,600 students who were considered potential degree recipients.

The pilot institutions will continue with the expanded project for one more year. By the end, they are expected to have awarded 1,000 associate degrees and have at least 2,000 students in line to complete their degrees.

"Extending the estimates across all of U.S. higher education would mean, at a minimum, a 12-percent increase in the number of associate degrees awarded," Mr. Adelman said.

He added that the total number of new associate degrees conferred could reach 250,000 if four-year colleges that don't award associate degrees, but could identify students who transfer in without the degree, were added to the mix.

At McNeese State University, 17 associate degrees have been awarded to students since the institution began participating in the pilot program. Six more students will receive their degrees during winter commencement.

The university, in Louisiana, found 450 students qualified to earn an associate degree after conducting an audit of student records. Of those, 150 met the requirement to immediately earn the degree while the other 300 need to take a few more courses. The university plans to encourage the "near completers" to re-enroll at the university and finish enough courses to earn the associate degree.

Stephanie Tarver, dean of enrollment management at McNeese, said the majority of students eligible for the associate degree had enrolled at the university with the intent of earning a bachelor's degree. Life sometimes just got in the way for some students, she said.

Ms. Tarver said they found one student who had wanted to become a teacher but left the university after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly know as Lou Gehrig's disease. The student received her degree this spring.

"There were a lot of tears on the other side of the phone," Ms. Tarver said.

Help for People Near Completion

Lumina, which financed the pilot program and is now paying for the expanded project, got involved in the effort because foundation officials were intrigued with the idea of helping the near-completer population, said Holly Zanville, a program director at the foundation.

She said a lot of students don't know even know they have enough credits for at least an associate degree.

While considered successful, the pilot program also identified weakness in the higher-education system, the institute found. Those include incompatibility between local and state data, insufficient degree-audit software, and missing transcripts from other institutions.

Ms. Zanville said that information should be used to develop policies that could be put in place to overcome the barriers.


1. eberg - August 26, 2010 at 05:52 am

As one who benefitted in the early 1960s from the second-chance practices offered by(then)Ferris Institute in Big Rapids, MI, I applaud such efforts. However, in my view, these kinds of policies should avoid the wholesale credentialing of disinterested dropouts in the effort to attain "programmatic goals". Rather, efforts could focus on completion by students of degrees equal (perhaps even greater) rigor and economic relevance than the original sought. The undeveloped talents of dropouts are far more numerous than can be imagined and one should not be surprised to find that many students will continue to study at higher degree levels and to enter successful career paths.

2. joneseagle - August 26, 2010 at 06:15 am

As the father of one of those students - two courses short of an Associate's degree and 11 short of a Batchelor's degree - I applaud the efforts of any institution that is willing to find those in similar situations. My son connected this summer with the community college to finish his two courses and negotiated contingent readmittance into his four-year university IF HE completed those two courses this fall. I wish him well and support his effort to return to his eductional goal. Institutions that go after students to find ways to complete are the institutions that the public holds in good favor. Does that translate into donations and support? Could be. Who knows? Maybe something that needs to be looked into.
Education does not hurt - ignorannce does.

3. bertnb - August 26, 2010 at 07:27 am

This program sounds wonderful on paper. However, the reality is that it has brought up challenges (at least for my Wisconsin institution). The point that the article doesn't bring up is that the longer the students have been away from the institution, the harder they are to help. One student contacted us, who had been contacted through this program, who had walked away from her studies at our school in 1982. That was a very long time ago in the life of the college. In some instances, the very degree they were working on no longer exists, while certainly the classes that they needed no longer do. We try to update them to a current degree program, but things don't necessarily translate very well.

Another issue? A woman who now lives in Texas contacted our school -- having been contacted through this program and was excited about finishing her degree. The problem? She refused to come back to Wisconsin to finish up, needed at least six very specific classes, and demanded to be able to take them online. Our school offers many classes on line -- but currently, none of the ones she was seeking. We certainly do not have the faculty/instructor resources to create distance learning options on demand to meet the very specific needs of a handful of students so they can complete their degrees without altering their lifestyles. This student was very upset with us, because that was exactly what she was expecting.

4. 11167997 - August 26, 2010 at 08:27 am

Issued raised by bertnb:

1) The way Win-Win works, the first data cut identifies only those students who entered the institution after 2001-2002 (some institutions in the Pilot project used 2003), and who haven't been enrolled for at least a year at the point the data were cut (for the new project that means no current enrollment and no enrollment for 2009-2010), so we're not dealing with cases of ancient drop-out.
The second data cut determines whether these students are currently enrolled elsewhere or had subsequently earned a degree elsewhere. They are eliminated from the universe. The residual populations are then subject to degree audit, and that's the crucible of the inquiry. They are divided into three groups: eligible for an associate's degree; "academically short" by 9 or fewer credits; and neither of the above.

2) The second issue is a legitimate one, and part of Win-Win is devoted to determining the conditions under which the "academically short by 9 or fewer credits" will return to complete. I trust the institutions involved to come up with some creative solutions. They are all real pioneers, and we should be grateful for their efforts. There's a lot of work in this.

Cliff Adelman, Institute for Higher Education Policy

5. chalfhill - August 26, 2010 at 09:49 am

In response to bertnb -- we should not damn a program because of a few outliers it can not and was not designed to meet. Rather, we should be prepared and comfortable explaining to those such as the student from Texas why the program can not meet her distance requirements and why the school can not waive its residency requirement that would permit her to seek a closer school. Perhaps the computer program that identifies students should narrow its time search but while it is regrettable when a student does not accept the explanations, I don't think we can use this as determinant of a program's success.

6. 11182967 - August 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

Non-traditional degrees can be as demading and academically sound as traditional degrees. Many institutions, and some states, have baccaluareate programs designed for older, non-traditional students returning to complete degrees. West Virginia's state colleges and universities have offered the Regents Bachelor of Arts degree for many years. Although the degree does not require a specific major it does require 40 hours of upper level courses--more than some traditional majors. It also offers the opportunity to apply for credit for work experience through a portfolio and for forgiveness of failing grades from years ago. Many RBA students are employed and seeking additional education for career advancement, and many go on to graduate and profession schools.

The RBA program is also a boon to students who have earned credits from several institutions, and at different times in their lives, but who have not been able to complete a particular set of degree requirements at a specific institution. Such a program would have benefitted my mother, who finally graduated at age 64 after earning 160+ from four institutions as first a conventionally-aged student, later a middle-aged student, and finally a student finishing up on her social security. As a published author, she would certainly have gained portfolio credit in an RBA-type program and probably graduated at the middle-aged rather than the social security stage.

The RBA and other well-designed non-traditional programs typically go through the same sort of approval processes as other degrees and require the same academic rigor. The RBA is not your father's or mother's college degree, perhaps--but it well could be. And as we look at these degrees we might also be mindful of what's happened to your father's Oldsmobile.

John Teeuwissen
Asst. VP for Academic Affairs
West Virginia State University

7. painter33 - August 26, 2010 at 11:56 am

Of course there have been instances that illustrate success of students reentering a curriculum, but when one investigates the reasons why some students drop out relatively close to attaining a degree, whether an associates or baccalaureate degree, may be for very good reasons. Some are required by the institution to leave based on appalling performance levels. Some realize, after a significant investment of time and money, that they were ill-suited to the major they chose or that they treated their selection of course as a hit-or-miss hodgepodge of paths of least resistance that led to nowhere. Many students do find their way back to the academic experience because they really do want to learn, or they know that a career might await them at the end of their matriculation. No special program is necessary for the motivated, and, in my opinion, why create a kind of giveaway program for those who aren't truly interested? It's ironic that Louisiana is one of the states mentioned - in its TOPS program, the state pays for eight semesters' tuition, but many students take seven years or longer to either graduate or finally drop out because they only have to pay fees and room and board (and beer). Handing them or easing the means to a degree would be a travesty of the first order. They've already abused one system, so why reward them?

8. 11167997 - August 26, 2010 at 04:25 pm

And in partial response to painter33, Win-Win considers only those students whose GPAs exceed that required for graduation, i.e. no "appalling performance levels" in this universe. --Cliff Adelman

9. 11182967 - August 27, 2010 at 09:06 am

Cliff Adelman: good point. And another partial response to painter33: while non-traditional degree programs should make every effort to nudge (thanks Cass Sunstein) students along as quickly as possible, if these students are full-time employees or caregivers, etc., their progress, even when steady, make take some time. Even the dropouts, if they accumulate significantly more credits, have an investment which may make it more likely that they return once again and finish. I don't know where you teach, but at an urban commuter institution it's not unusual for students to (have to)stop out more than once. It should also be noted that completion of a degree in one's 30s or 40s or even 50s can leave someone with quite a few years of career in which to utilize the education. John Tee

10. fergbutt - August 28, 2010 at 03:49 pm

Life is just one big do-over.

11. druce - August 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

Its not only an excellent remedy, but what about examining the illness? Seriously, why not penalize the colleges that released the students --in the first place?
Check the symptoms? Was the college too money-focused and not student-focued.
Whose endowments where spent where? And to what end, exactly? How did Wall Street profit from that mess...Since when did non-profits get to act like for-profit entities?
What do our constitutional laws say about that? (Especially the gig about exempting student-loans from bankruptcy protection courts.
What is the primary college-board dream about anyway?
Finally, why are taxpayers stuck with deficit-producing student loan money wasted on academic non-producing colleges.
OH, and lets not forget to review college spending on all those stupid capital building progjects... just to make accreditation standars?

12. romanor12 - August 31, 2010 at 11:49 am

If it is just an increase in the number of credentials that you want--About 20 years ago at my communioty college we did a computer run on all the students who lacked 9 or fewer credits for a degree and had the required GPA. We send letters to them about transfering back to the CC any credits they had since received at any college. We found about 12 who had the credits required to fill out degree requirements. Transferred the credits and gave them a credential (degree). It would be even easier today by using the National Student Clearinghouse to identify the students who transferred to another college without our degree. degree.

13. 11274135 - August 31, 2010 at 01:12 pm

"He [Adelman] added that the total number of new associate degrees conferred could reach 250,000 if four-year colleges that don't award associate degrees, but could identify students who transfer in without the degree, were added to the mix."

Many students transfer from two year to four year colleges without completing an associate's degree and go on to get a bachelor's degree. Most of these students could transfer a few credits back to the 2 year college to get an associate's degree. But why? It might improve the degree completion stats for the two year college but does nothing for the student (for whom the bachelor's generally trumps the associate's degree as a job qualification). Nor does it increase the number of people who have college degrees.

In areas where there are tight relationships between two and four years colleges, many students, for economic or other reasons, often take exactly what they need from the two year college to transfer efficiently into a curriculum at the four year college. In many cases, completing degree requirements at the two year college is not in the student's best interest. Yet we do need to find a way (other than degree conpletion)to recognize the significant contribution the two year college has made to the student's success in completing a bachelor's degree. Non-degree transfers are often the two year college's greatest success stories.

I hate to see good guys like Cliff Adelman appearing to confuse degree completion with education.

14. sdauskurdas - August 31, 2010 at 01:31 pm

I think what Adelman meant were those students who transferred out of CC to a four-year school with every intention of getting a bachelor's degree, but then never finished. Now they have 40 hours at a CC and another, say 20 at a state school but NO DEGREE. These are the people being sought. It's like they fell through a crack in the process. Their own fault, but so be it. Yes, people should have their own initiative and finish without special programs helping out, but the reality is Obama set out a mandate for the colleges to boost their grad rates, and they are doing whatever they can to meet it. Kudos for the creativity.

15. rsp0001 - August 31, 2010 at 03:02 pm

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Offering still another chance for those who "fell just short of a degree" sounds quite humane. And for those who actually fit that presumptive implication--this is a noble thought.

However, this practice has been around for DECADES with mixed results. What you actually find are many who could not care less, totally disinterested, amused at the offer, offended by being asked, totally disengaged from such consideration, and generally surprised by the institution's attempt to go back to the future.

Far too many "students" were never really engaged, not seeking degrees, not wanting closure, or otherwise unable to comprehend their standing in the college quagmire so near and dear to the hearts of others.

Many students in career or vo-tech programs are often overwhelmed, out-of-touch, dated or so involved with working or living that they cannot afford the time or luxury for degree contemplation, let alone completion. Far too many did not fall short of credits for completion, rather fell short of stamina, motivation, drive, sustinence, desire, understanding, willingness or other more serious socioecomomic issues in their day-to-day lives.

Programs evolve, many are time-dated or value-limited, people change, life tends to be hard and genuine opportunity to go back and complete a degree can be a foreign construct, unrelated to time and circumstances, questionable at least and problematic for too many to handle.

One college found hundreds of students in their records who actually had sufficient credit accumulations on record for one form of degree or another (that's another story) and sent degrees to all. The value of such degrees and the process of sending them where unexpected raised many questions of value and purpose.

Nothing is as simple as it seems.

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